MS patient finds inspiration and energy in silk painting
By Julie Kirchem, Web Editor, Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute
TERRELL, TEXAS – March 2, 2017 – When Julie Cox-Hamm was a child growing up in Wichita, Kansas, she and her mother would head to the fabric stores every weekend. Her mother sewed clothing for the family and even made outfits for Julie's dolls. Those shopping trips sparked Julie’s lifelong love of women’s fashion and design.
Her passion and a talent for drawing led to her first job as a fashion illustrator with a Wichita newspaper – she was only 19 years old.
As design moved to computers, so did Julie, who eventually landed at a design firm in Dallas. But at the age of 37, she had a scare that she feared would put an end to her career. It started out with vision problems in her right eye.
“I walked into people in grocery stores, I missed steps,” she said.
Julie saw an ophthalmologist who diagnosed her with optic neuritis, a condition that is frequently associated with multiple sclerosis. An MRI confirmed the MS. Over the years, she has struggled with the fatigue and muscle weakness caused by the MS, but it was the impact on her eyesight that worried her most.
“It shook me so much with my loss of depth perception, even though my ophthalmologist said my brain would take over and compensate,” Julie said.
Around the same time as her diagnosis, a friend invited her to attend a class in silk painting in Deep Ellum.
“The first moment I put dye on silk, it was a revelation,” she said. “I fell in love with it.”
As her doctor had predicted, Julie’s brain eventually compensated for the loss of depth perception and she was able to go back to work as a graphic designer. But weekends were reserved for her silk and dyes.
“It is the only art form that truly gives me joy and it is the medium where I can express whatever I want to express,” she said.
When Julie retired a few years ago, she started focusing more on her painting but still considered it a hobby. Then one day, she received a call from UT Southwestern telling her that she had an appointment with Dr. Darin Okuda in the MS Clinic.
Her former doctor had moved away, so this would be her first appointment with Dr. Okuda. Julie didn’t know what to expect, but it was a meeting that changed her life.
“He did something for me that no one has ever done for me and it has nothing to with MS," she said. "He took the time and he looked at my work and he looked at me and said, ‘you don’t know how good you are.’”
What Julie didn't know was that Dr. Okuda had once painted himself.
“I was an oil painter during my younger years and my parents always championed the artistic side of my mind growing up,” said Dr. Okuda.
He sees patient’s artistic endeavors as an important part of their lives.
“I really enjoy looking at art created by our patients," he said. "I feel it adds another dimension to better understanding them and how they view the world.”
Julie is one of sixteen master silk artists in the world, according to Silk Painters International.
Some of her original fabric designs were displayed on the runway during New York City Fashion week in 2008 and 2009. Several celebrities have worn her designs including Vanessa Williams in an episode of Desperate Housewives.
Her MS is always there but Julie has found ways to work around it.
“When I get tired, my hand shakes. One of the reasons I do shaky lines is I don’t know when that is going to happen. I gave up drawing straight lines years ago.“
Julie knows she needs to pace herself – take daily naps, eat right, and take supplements – but it may be the time she spends in her studio that does her the most good.
“I think it has helped with my symptoms because I don’t focus on them. I don’t introduce myself to people as someone who has MS,” she said. “Almost all my artwork is based on love and energy.”
She always has a design under way in her studio and teaches silk painting. And with some encouragement from Dr. Okuda, Julie is taking another step in her journey as an artist. In May, she will do a show and conduct workshops at the Carriage House Gallery in Newton, Kansas.
“The energy you put into creativity comes back to support you in all different aspects of your life and I would love to encourage other MS patients to find something that feeds their soul creatively. Not creating for anybody else, just for them.”
“Julie is so great and her work has been so inspirational and influential to many,” said Dr. Okuda.
To learn more about Julie's silk paintings, go to her websites: